BY JOHN WAWROW The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette — ORCHARD PARK — Get your hash tags ready because Mike Pettine is more than happy adding another chapter to the growing trend on Twitter known as “The Legend of Kiko Alonso.”
The Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator revealed this week how he’s begun calling his rookie middle linebacker “Roy Hobbs.”
Who? Why the fictional slugger in the movie “The Natural,” of course.
“There are some guys who have a natural feel for the game,” Pettine said. “And that’s why I nicknamed him Roy Hobbs a long time ago because he’s just a natural.”
It’s a fitting tag for several reasons. Pettine was previously unaware that the 1984 movie, starring Robert Redford as Hobbs, was filmed in Buffalo and included scenes from the Bills former home, War Memorial Stadium.
“I did not know that,” he said. “And I don’t know if (Alonso) even knows who Roy Hobbs is. But he is. It comes very natural to him.”
Alonso, a second-round pick out of Oregon, has taken both the NFL and Twitterverse by storm as the Bills (4-7) enter their bye.
On the field, Alonso’s 112 tackles ranked second heading into Week 12. His four interceptions are tied for third. Add to that, Alonso has forced a fumble, recovered one and has two sacks to rate prominent mention as an NFL defensive rookie of the year candidate.
“I can’t imagine a rookie having a better year,” Pettine said.
On Twitter, Bills fans have elevated Alonso to legendary status by coming up with amusing yet unfathomable tales, including: “When Kiko Alonso goes to Spain, he chases the bulls.”
The soft-spoken Alonso has been taken aback by the attention, and dismissed questions regarding how easy he’s made seem the transition from college.
“That’s just people from the outside looking in because it hasn’t been easy at all,” Alonso said. “I prepare in practice just so I can perform well. Whatever comes along with it, rewards or whatever, is great. That’s what I prepare for, to perform really well.”
More encouraging is how Alonso’s production has put the spotlight on Buffalo’s rookie class that has made significant contributions to a team that placed a big emphasis on starting over during a top-to-bottom offseason overhaul.
The transformation began Jan. 1, when Russ Brandon took over as Bills president and vowed leaving no stone unturned to repair what he called the franchise’s “tarnished relevancy.”
The Bills hired a rookie coach, Doug Marrone. They’re headed by a rookie general manager, Doug Whaley, who took over in May after Buddy Nix stepped down. And they feature a rookie class that includes quarterback EJ Manuel (selected 16th overall) and receivers Robert Woods (41st) and Marquise Goodwin (78th).
Alonso was selected 46th with a pick the Bills acquired by moving back in the first round in a trade with St. Louis.
Brandon credits Nix and Whaley for selecting the players, and Marrone for molding them.
“I really love what (Marrone’s) building and the character of this team,” Brandon said. “We know our record isn’t where we want it to be, but these guys continue to bring it each and every week.”
The only thing unchanged is the losing record for a team that’s not made the playoffs since 1999. This marks the 12 out of 13 seasons Buffalo hasn’t had a winning record through 11 games.
The schedule does get easier. Buffalo’s next three opponents — Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville — have combined for only five wins entering this week.
Manuel has struggled on the road, where he’s 0-3, and his development was hampered after missing four games with a sprained right knee. And yet, the Florida State product is 3-1 at home, and coming off his most complete performance. He went 20 of 28 for 245 yards and two touchdowns in out-dueling fellow rookie quarterback Geno Smith in a 37-14 win over the Jets.
The key now is for Manuel to start showing consistency.
“Has he arrived? Obviously, I hope so,” Marrone said of Manuel, who has eight touchdowns and four interceptions, and ranks 20th among NFL quarterbacks with an 82.1 rating. “But the proof in the pudding is going to be the consistency.”
Woods is third on the team with 349 yards receiving and two touchdowns. And Goodwin, a speedster out of Texas, has provided the Bills a bona fide deep threat. He has 18 catches for 272 yards and three touchdowns — all 40 yards or longer.
Then there’s Alonso, a lynchpin of a defense that has made significant strides under Pettine, who spent the four previous seasons holding the same job with the Jets.
“I’d be lying if I said on draft day, ‘This is the answer. We’ve solidified the inside linebacker spot,’” Pettine said, slapping the table for emphasis in sharing his initial expectations regarding Alonso. “But I realized very quickly that I think we hit big on this kid.”